Brain in a Social-Media Vat

[Note: I suspect this will not be my most popular post.]

Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a billionaire decided to play a cruel trick on you. He knew that you were partial to one particular candidate for president and he knew that you would get very upset if the other candidate for president had won. Even though the polls seemed to indicate that your preferred candidate was going to win, this billionaire decided to test what would happen if he could trick you into thinking that the other candidate had won.

So he made a bet with his best friend Mortimer that if he could create a stream of media and social media stories that made it look like the bad guy had won, that he could send you into a tizzy. He’d pay your friends and family to go along with the story – and with their help he knew you would fall for it. That you would fret day and night about the consequences of the horrible things this bad guy was going to do the world. That you’d let this ruse impact your daily mood.

But here’s the thing: he wouldn’t have to change anything in the daily substance of your world to convince you the bad guy had won. Other than the stories you were told, nothing in your quotidian world would change. The food you ate, the prices you paid for stuff, where you could go, what you could say; it would all be the exact same. Your life would be identical. The alternate universe wouldn’t be much of an alternate universe at all. It would just be an alternate universe of news, information, and stories.

But that would be enough to change how you viewed the world every day.

The experiment wouldn’t even be all that expensive. After all, there are so many underpaid journalists, that he could easily pay a few to write inflammatory articles on the side that would get your goat up. The tricky part would be hacking all of your electronic devices to secretly redirect to this fictional media and social-media universe. But with the help of a few adroit hackers and the access provided by your well-compensated family, it would be easy enough.

How long would it take you to figure out that you were wrong? That you were living in an alternate universe of news and social media? Before the difference between one president’s actual policies and the other president’s policies affected your daily life in a way that forced you to stand up and notice? For a very small minority of people, such as Iranian immigrants traveling abroad trying to re-enter the country, the different policies would be immediately apparent. But for the vast majority of us, the answer is that other than the stories we hear in the news and on social media, we’d probably never notice a difference. That presidential policy only affects our daily lives at the margins, if at all. That the billionaire could play a trick on us – or could have already played a trick on us to convince us during any president’s tenure that someone else had won – and we’d never be the wiser.

None of this is meant to justify a president’s bad policies. It’s just to call into question how much we let news and social media chatter impact our daily moods.

Perhaps you think we have an obligation to always fight injustice – to stand at attention to injustice at all times. Maybe.

There are an average of 400,000 murders on this planet every year. That’s a lot of injustice. And – as unfortunate and tragic as all of these crimes are – they are probably all outside of your control. Just as presidential politics are largely out of your control. And as bad as this president’s policies might be (assuming this experiment hasn’t already been played on me), certainly they are not as bad as those of Isaias Afewerki, Kim Jong-Un, or Robert Mugabe – all horrible leaders who have been in power for years. But it’s unlikely you let Kim Jong-Un’s cruel treatment of his people affect your mood much.

So why let this president’s shenanigans affect you?

There’s a lot of injustice on this planet. Define your moral code and stick to it. Live according to your carefully considered principles – even if they are counter to public policy. Be active in fighting injustice to the extent that you believe yourself able to effect change.

But an overwrought sense of righteous indignation at a constant stream of news stories is unlikely to do anything other than ruin your own mood. And if that’s where you choose to focus your attention at all times, so be it. But we do have a choice whether to let someone else affect our moods. I take comfort and put great emphasis on that power – as it may be the only form of power I have over more powerful people – whether they are presidents or billionaires (or both).